The Changing Media

September 12, 2011

Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of September 11. Just about everyone and every media outlet provided some kind of reflection about the day--both recounting the gravity of the situation and the heroism. (Here is a particularly moving one I saw on ESPN.)

From my perspective though, one of the most intriguing video collections I saw was from CNN. As part of its 10th anniversary package, CNN included its original broadcast from that day in 2001. It includes about an hour or so of the footage from the time the first tower was hit until after the second tower collapsed.

As an historical record of the day, it is powerful video. It is especially poignant watching it with the knowledge of 10 years of information to fill in the uncertainties of the moment. But what I found really fascinating is how the story was covered, which is to say with the utmost regard for journalism and integrity.

If you go back and watch CNN's coverage, you will notice the complete absence of speculation. If anything, the news anchors undersell the magnitude of the situation. Where today, anchors, needing to fill every second of airtime, would no doubt feel the need to speculate on every worst case scenario, those anchors on CNN merely reported what they knew. It was remarkable restraint in the face of a terrifying event.

The most remarkable, if not unbelievable, aspect of the coverage was how long it took before they discussed this as a deliberate attack. As much as 30 minutes into the coverage, even after the second plane hit the south tower, the anchors were speculating not about a terrorist attack, but about an instrument malfunction that might have led to the planes flying into the building. It is remarkable to anyone who has watched the 24-hour networks cover breaking news in the 10 years since 9/11.

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Now, one can speculate on why the news was covered the way it was. I am sure at least some of it had to do with the fact that the U.S. had never been attacked in this way. Sure, there were bombings prior to this, but the idea of using a commercial airplane as a weapon just didn't register as a possibility. Additionally, the utter shock and immensity of the situation seemingly stripped most anchors down to pure human reaction. The polish that comes with TV news presenters faded into the reality of the moment.

No doubt some of the change in news coverage has to do with the changing information environment of today. Information flows quickly and unchecked through every communication channel imaginable. (Whet Moser provides a nice meta-analysis of the discussion about social media and 9/11 on Chicago Magazine.) The competitive nature of the news business, the drive to be first, and the glut of information, both good and bad, create a perfect storm of wild speculation and rushed decisions. The result is the viewer seeing news vetted live on TV.

Finally, in the wake of 9/11, the media, politicians, and really the public in general embraced an Us vs. Them narrative. These narratives not oversimplify issues, but also create a confrontational atmosphere and demonizing of the perceived other. In this world, nothing is too abhorrent for your adversary and your actions are always justified. This extends beyond the war on terror, but also to the healthcare debates, the debt ceiling debates, etc. In this world, speculating on the terrible things "they" would do is a discussion of real possibilities. It doesn't make sense in this world to assume something is an accident. In this world, you are always under attack, you are always a victim.

Personally, I think this narrative has had the greatest impact on news, particularly TV news, over the last decade. The fact is, television is not suited for telling a complex story with layers. But Us/Them simplifies everything. This has always been the go-to method when discussing conflicts in developing countries. It is easier to reduce it to good vs. evil. David vs. Goliath. Polarizing every story makes it far more digestible for people taking in hundreds of news items a day.

I know there are other aspects involved in the media landscape not covered above. Still, the manner in which news is presented has an effect on how people react. Given how much stronger information networks are today, even speculative rumors can have life well after they have been disavowed. While it may never be possible to regain the innocence lost 10 years ago, I think we can look at the way this story was covered and relearn what it takes to tell an important story.

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Jeff Francis is a marketing geek who would never refer to himself as a guru. He is that weird sort who enjoys watching commercials and analyzing communication strategies. He is also available for hire and would love to hear from you. So, head on over to the contact page and get in touch.


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